Razorbacks headed for Top 25 showdown at Auburn

Arkansas guard Joseph Pinion (5) scores on a fast break against UNC Asheville during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Injuries were the overriding storyline for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2022 football season, and unfortunately, injuries will be at least an aspect of the story of the 2022-23 Razorback basketball team, too.

With ultra-talented sophomore transfer Trevon Brazile already out for the season with torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman relayed the news Thursday that Blue Chip freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. of Jacksonville will be out through January with a knee injury.

The news left some speculating if Smith will ever suit up for the Hogs again.

That may be going a bit far, but Smith was projected to be an early pick in this summer’s NBA Draft before the injury. Some think his most prudent move would be to focus on getting healthy for the NBA Combine rather than trying to suit up for the Hogs this year.

Musselman hasn’t overly lamented the loss of two players with the talent of Smith and Brazile publicly, but it is safe to say the current makeup of his Razorback squad isn’t exactly what he envisioned last summer when he began working with one of the most talented Razorback basketball squads in history.

That said the No. 13 Razorbacks (12-2, 1-1 SEC) are doing fine, sitting 12-2 on the season 1-1 in the SEC going into a key matchup with No. 22 Auburn (12-3, 1-1) on the road at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

Next up for the No. 13 Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7
Where: Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network

Next 3 games

Jan. 11 — Alabama – 6 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 14 — at Vanderbilt – 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 18 — at Missouri – 8 p.m. (SEC Network)

It’s early, but the SEC appears to be an even stronger league this year than in the recent past. A three-point road loss to a surprisingly strong LSU squad under first-year coach Matt McMahon isn’t what any Hog fan wanted from the conference opener, but the margin for victory and margin for error this season in the SEC, particularly on the road, is going to be slight.

Though Missouri stunned the Hogs with a nut-shell zone defense concentrated in the paint early and built a 17-point first-half lead Wednesday, the Razorbacks found their stride, cut the lead under 10 by half, and plowed forward for a 74-68 victory.

Feisty freshman Joseph Pinion’s feathery shooting touch showed why Musselman recruited him as a part of Arkansas’ most-heralded recruiting class in decades. The 6-5 Morrilton native forced Missouri to stretch out its defense by hitting 3 of 6 three-pointers, opening up the lane for his teammates.

Pinion started in place of Ricky Council IV in the second half, but when the junior got back in the lineup, Council made Missouri pay with his drives to the basket and his outside touch, finishing with 25 points.

It will be interesting to see if Pinion’s 13 points will earn him more playing time. He looked to be a pesky defender in his time on the floor, but the Hogs give up size, length, and athleticism with him in the lineup.

However, if the threat of his shot keeps defenses spread, more playing time for Pinion might be exactly what the Hogs’ need.

Davonte “Devo” Davis continues to quietly have a great season for the Hogs. He did have five turnovers, but his defense stood out. He stuffed his stat line with 10 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals.

The experience and toughness of Davis and Council is pivotal for this Razorback team as it moves forward this season.

The Razorbacks pounded Missouri on the glass, out-rebounding the Tigers 40-23. Kamani Johnson led the way with 8 boards, followed by Council, Jordan Walsh, and Makhi Mitchell with 7 apiece.

Some of that has to do with the nature of Missouri’s offense and defense, which emphasizes pace, turnovers, and fatigue much like legendary Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson’s did. However, one can’t deny the effort of Arkansas’ big men on the glass. Rebounds never come to the lazy.

Arkansas’ 80-76 overtime ambush of No. 1 Auburn last year in Bud Walton Arena might have been the game of the year in the SEC. While the Hogs are almost an entirely new squad save for Davis, who played great against the Tigers a year ago, and Johnson, there is no doubt that Bruce Pearl and his squad has Saturday night’s game circled.

It is a huge contest for both teams who are already chasing Alabama and Tennessee which are off to a perfect start in SEC play after two games.

Bruce Pearl’s squad has been shaky through two games in league play. A surprising Georgia squad ambushed Auburn, 76-64, Wednesday night in Athens, and the Tigers topped a struggling Florida squad, 61-58 at home on Dec. 28.

Arkansas’ swagger and national ranking no doubt places a huge target on the Hogs.

Pearl mentioned in his latest media appearance that his team has not played well yet in league play, but are still .500 in the SEC, indicating that he knows his squad can perform better.

Pearl admitted Arkansas has been impressive this season, but he feels his squad is capable of pulling off the upset.

“There is a six-foot-seven point guard,” Pearl said of Anthony Black, “but we have guarded Arkansas really well historically. We will guard them again. The size and the length allows them to bother, and be able to extend defensively and get in passing lanes.

“Turnovers are an issue. That is one thing they feed off of. They have twice as many steals as their opponents…and turnovers lead to dunks at the other end.”

The Razorbacks can ill-afford to dig another 17-point hole like they did against Missouri and expect to win on the road against the Tigers.

No doubt Musselman has a plan to get his squad jump-started when they visit Auburn. Great teams find a way to win on the road.

The jury is still out on what kind of team this Razorback is yet and is developing to be.

The matchup with Auburn will be a good litmus test for a talented Razorback squad that is still finding its way with two of its most-talented players out with injuries.

Saturday’s SEC Games – Jan. 7, 2023

11 a.m. — Vanderbilt at No. 20 Missouri (CBS)
Noon — Kentucky at No. 7 Alabama (ESPN)
Noon — Georgia at Florida (SEC Network)
1 p.m.— Ole Miss at Mississippi State (CBS)
2:30 p.m. — No. 8 Tennessee at South Carolina (SEC Network)
5 p.m. —LSU at Texas A&M (SEC Network)
7:30 p.m. — No. 13 Arkansas at No. 22 Auburn (SEC Network)

SEC Standings

Texas A&M1-09-5
S. Carolina0-07-6
Miss. St.0-211-3
Ole Miss0-28-6